October 20, 2015

Election-cake Fungus Mystery

This isn't a commentary on the state of the current presidential campaign, but a puzzle posed by Thoreau's Journal entry of October 20, 1856:

"Amid the young pitch pines in the pasture behind I notice, as elsewhere of late, a great many brownish-yellow (and some pink) election-cake fungi, eaten by crickets; about 3" in diameter.  Some of those spread chocolate-colored ones have many grubs in them, though dry and dusty."

Previously, on July 29, 1853 he wrote:  I also see some small, umbrella-shaped (with sharp cones), shining and glossy yellow fungi, like an election cake atop, also some dead yellow and orange.

After reading that, I set off today to photograph Fairyland Pond (once called Hubbard's Close) and Brister's Spring and to seek the likeness of Henry's election-cake fungi in the pitch pine barrens atop Brister's Hill.  No luck as yet, but I encountered some other outstanding late October mushrooms.

Earth-star fungus (Astraeus hygrometricus), a form of puffball, grows in association with young pitch pines groves, enjoying the sunny open spaces around the trees.



Cinnabar polypore (Pycnoporus cinnabarinus) was growing nearby on a dark, fallen cherry log.


I spotted this next one as I followed the trail back down Brister's Hill.  This was growing in the crotch of a dying white oak tree that clung to the steep slope of the hill and looked like chicken-of-the-woods fungus from a distance.  I clambored down for a closer look and discovered these delicate fangs of the Milk-white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus), unfortunately but understandably in the shadows on the north side of the tree.


Still curious about the election-cake fungus, however, which Thoreau describes twice in his Journal in separate late October entries.  What is it and does it's name coincide with election season or is it one of Thoreau's playful sarcasms. 

I welcome any leads on the election-cake fungus's true identity.

3 comments:

  1. Fascinating. I searched the journals and found several more references to election-cake fungi. In the last one Thoreau makes a tentative identification:

    1. July 29, 1853: I also see some small umbrella shaped (with sharp cones) shining & glossy yellow fungi--like an election cake atop--also some dead yellow and orange.

    2. August 9, 1853: I plucked a great toadstool today, nine inches in diameter, and five high, with a stem like the bole of an oak, swelling above and below, and at the smallest one and a half inches in diameter; its top slightly curving like a great election cake.

    3. October 29, 1855: There are many fresh election-cake toadstools amid the pitch pines there, and also very regular higher hemispherical ones with a regularly warted or peppered surface.

    4. October 20, 1856: Amid the young pitch pines in the pasture behind I notice, as elsewhere of late, a great many brownish-yellow (and some pink) election-cake fungi, eaten by crickets; about three inches in diameter. Some of those spread chocolate-colored ones have many grubs in them, though dry and dusty.

    5. October 20, 1857: I see the yellowish election-cake fungi. Those large chocolate-covered ones have been burst some days (at least).

    6. October 4, 1858: See crickets eating the election-cake toadstools.

    7. October 10, 1858: I find the under sides of the election-cake fungi there covered with pink-colored fleas, apparently poduras, skipping about when it is turned up to the light.

    8. September 1, 1859: We are having our dog-days now and of late, methinks, having had none to speak of in August; and now at last I see a few toadstools,--the election-cake (the yellowish, glazed over) and the taller, brighter-yellow above.

    9. October 2, 1959: We had all our dog-days in September this year. It was too dry before, even for fungi . Only the last three weeks have we lead any fungi to speak of. Nowadays I see most of the election-cake fungi, with crickets and slugs eating them.

    10. October 16, 1859: That election-cake fungus which is still growing (as for some months) appears to be a Boletus.

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  2. Great sleuthing, Brent! You must have an efficient searchable copy of his Journal, mine often misses passages and the index in the Dover edition only lists 2 passages. Adding up the chocolate-covered, yellowish overall, shining/glossy, found among pitch pines, and appearances from July through Oct. references...I'll place my bet on Suillus granulatus.

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